Looking for something old, something new? Explore one of Scandinavia's oldest cities on a different kind of day trip from Oslo.
Laying claim to be the country’s oldest city, Tønsberg was founded by the Vikings and went on to become of Norway’s most important cities in the Middle Ages. Tønsberg is located close to the Oslofjord and like many Norwegian cities, the water is of critical importance.
Without it, there would be no city here. Take a stroll along the wharf–a smaller version of Bergen's famous Bryggen–and you'll be transported back to a time when Tønsberg was a trading hub for southeast Norway.
Where is Tønsberg?
The city is on the western edge of the Oslofjord, approximately 100km from Oslo. It is the administrative capital of Vestfold county. From January 2020, the county will be merged with neighbouring Telemark. The new, much larger, combined county will take the rather uninspiring name Vestfold og Telemark.
Step on to the Viking trail
Although unheard of by many international travellers who are heading straight for the fjords, the city is popular with domestic tourists.
Historical sites including Viking burial mounds and church ruins attract lots of visitors, especially during the summer months when the Oslofjord region typically enjoys warm weather.
Tønsberg is the starting point of the Vestfold Viking Trail, a series of ancient settlements and burial mounds from the Viking Age dotted along the Oslofjord.
Tønsberg by numbers
102 kilometres from Oslo.
48,350 people live in Tønsberg city, split between Tønsberg and Nøtterøy municipalities.
20.8 percentage increase in population from 2000 to 2015.
Top sights in Tønsberg
As a bonus to car-free international visitors, the city is easy to reach on a day trip from Oslo by train or bus. Here are a few things go see and do while you're in town…
The wharf has been the focal point of the city for more than a thousand years. Previously the centre point of trade for the region, the trading houses standing today date to the early 19th century and house bars and restaurants.
Anyone who's been to Oslo's famous Viking ship museum will know of the Oseberg find, whether they realise it or not! The original 9th-century vessel uncovered from a burial mound near Tønsberg is on display there.
A short stroll from the wharf you'll find a full-scale replica of the Saga Oseberg ship moored in the harbour. It was built to the original specifications using only tools available during the Viking era. Sadly you can't take a ride in it, as the boat is only taken out of its mooring for special events.
The city's museum is constantly evolving and has the lofty ambition to become an internationally-known medieval museum.
Right now, it's most important exhibit is the Klåstad viking ship, the only one from the local finds on display outside Oslo. Plans are underway to build a new version of the Klåstad ship as was down with the Saga.
Standing proudly above the museum are the ruins of a 12th-century church and fortress, part of the former Royal Residence, along with the easy-to-spot stone tower.
This was built in the late 19th-century to celebrate the city's thousand year history, and visitors can climb to the top for a 360-degree of the city and fjord.
Haugar Vestfold Art Museum
The star attraction at the Haugar Vestfold Art Museum is the Andy Warhol paintings that were inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Warhol’s portrait of Queen Sonja is also on loan from Oslo’s National Museum.
However, these paintings are not always out on display, so check in advance if you're planning on making a special trip here just to see them!
At the time of writing, the main exhibition is a series of works inspired by Edvard Munch's home in Åsgårdstrand, a few miles north of Tønsberg.
Out and about
Enjoy the sea breeze and the diverse range of birdlife by exploring the coastal path of Ilene Nature Reserve, to the northwest of the city. Birdwatching stations and picnic spots dot the 7.5km trail family-friendly trail. Alternatively, you can explore the coastal paths of Nøtterøy island.
In the summer months, Bolernebåtene operate small passenger ferries from the Fiskebrygga quayside (a 15-minute walk from Tønsberg Wharf) that cruise around the archipelago.
Further afield, Verdens Ende (The World's End) is part of Færder National Park and offers great ocean views, a small animal park, horse riding, rock climbing, and a visitor centre. The well-known Vippefyret tower marking the site was built from stones from Tjøme beach more than 80 years ago.
Festivals & Events
If you're planning a trip to the city, why not time it to coincide with some of the biggest events of the year?
Tønsberg Medieval Festival
Every year in early June, thousands of people flock to Slottsfjellet for the pageantry and family-friendly fun of Tønsberg Medieval Festival (Middelalderfestival)
Expect juggling, live music and theatre performances, and jousting tournaments during the daytime, and a medieval banquet for the grown-ups in the evening.
The biggest music festival for miles around features mainly Norwegian acts and attracts an audience of thousands to the hilltop for its four day run every summer. Camping is available as there simply aren't enough beds in the city!
Held in mid-June every year, Tønsbergdagen brings a great atmosphere to the city streets, with live entertainment and later opening hours for many stores and restaurants.
Living in Tønsberg
Traditionally, the city was known for its silver mining. As an important regional centre of today, many companies have a presence in Tønsberg along with many local government jobs.
Families moving to Tønsberg can make use of the International Church, while Skagerak International School is located in Sandefjord, a 30km drive south of the city. Tønsberg is home to a relatively small number of immigrants, with the largest groups from Poland and Lithuania.
Many famous Norwegians have called the city their home over the years including shipping magnate Wilhelm Wilhelmsen, former Liberal party politician and Prime Minister of Norway Johan Sverdrup, Manchester United footballer Ronny Johnsen, and chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen.
Getting to Tønsberg
Tønsberg is a 100km drive south of Oslo down the E18 on the western side of the Oslofjord. There is an hourly regional train service from Oslo Central Station to Larvik that calls at Tønsberg. A single ticket for the 80-minute journey costs 244kr. Check Vy for timetables and to book tickets.
An alternative option for other visitors is Sandefjord Airport Torp, a small regional airport served by Widerøe flights from Bergen and Trondheim. There are also several routes to the United Kingdom, Spain, and Poland on European budget carriers.
There's a free shuttle bus from the airport to Torp railway station, which is just a 15-minute train ride away from Tønsberg.
Have you been to Tønsberg? What did you do?
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2 thoughts on “Historic Tønsberg”
I had the privilege to visit Tonsberg in 2008 to visit family. We had some breathtaking views, got some history lessons and enjoyed great food. I am looking forward to going back sometime.
Really nice and interesting town with some fine islands and headlands to explore to the south. I particularly recall a visit to the small island of Veierland, and the bucolic atmosphere as I strolled around the car-less tracks. Everybody smiled and waved or said ‘Hej’, even the few kids in the small school. I have seldom felt so relaxed and calm, to this day I wonder why I ever left…